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What’s the Difference Between Butterflies and Moths?

Owl Butterfly (Caligo Memnon)
Karen Grigoryan/Shutterstock

When you see one fluttering through your garden, how do you know if it’s a butterfly or a moth? The misconception that all butterflies are colorful and all moths aren’t might have you confusing them.

The two bugs have similarities, and rightly so. They are both parts of the order of Lepidoptera. Lepis meaning “scale” and pteron meaning “wing,” in Greek. Their differences outweigh their commonalities, however.

Behavioral Differences

To start, Moths and butterflies don’t act the same way. Moths are nocturnal, so you’ll find them flying around your porch light and sneaking in your house after dark, while butterflies are active during the day (diurnal).

Then again, some moths fly during the day, such as the buck moth. Some butterflies are crepuscular, flying mostly at dawn and dusk.

Physical Differences

Both butterflies and moths are holometabolous. They both go through a complete metamorphosis, which includes going from egg to caterpillar and then from chrysalis to adult.

From larva, or caterpillar, to the adult stage, butterflies and moths are different. The pupal stage of a moth requires making a cocoon, which is a silk-wrapped body covering that the caterpillar will emerge from as a moth. For butterflies, the pupal stage is spent in a chrysalis. The chrysalis is a silkless enclosure that is smooth and hard.

The wings and antennae on butterflies and moths often vary as well.

Wings

Moths and butterflies hold their wings differently when at rest. Butterflies are usually spotted with their wings up over their backs. Moths often flatten their wings out when at rest. Again, not all moths and butterflies are created equally.

After all, around 20,000 species of butterflies and 160,000 species of moths exist in the world. Using these numbers, you can see there are far more moths than butterflies. Butterflies and skippers make up only about 11 percent of the Lepidoptera order, while moths make up the rest of it.

It is typical for butterflies to have larger wings with more colorful patterns. However, large-winged, beautiful moths also exist, like the Luna moth (brightly colored) and the few species of moths that look like they have owl eyes on their wings (including the Io moth).

The way the wings are built for butterflies and moths vary as well. Moths have a frenulum, which joins their forewing to the hind wing and makes their wings work together when they fly. Butterflies don’t have this.

Antennae

The antennae are an even more sure sign of the difference between moths and butterflies. Moths have feathery antennae, or they look as though they have a saw-edge to them. Butterflies’ antennae have a long, club-shaped shaft that finishes off at a bulbed end.

Similarities Between Butterflies and Moths

Butterflies and moths both have the same purpose on the planet. Both of these insects help with plant pollination. They can both end up as food for other animals, too.

While many species of moths and butterflies stay in the same area throughout all seasons, some of both migrate to warmer climates during the cold season. The Monarch is one common butterfly that migrates.

As adults, both moths and butterflies live on a diet mostly made up of nectar from plants. They also drink from fruits (which is why some people leave out orange halves). In the larval stage, the caterpillars of moths and butterflies tend to eat specific plants or parts of plants. Some caterpillars only eat tomato plants. The Monarch caterpillar eats milkweed.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »